Song of the Day: October 30

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Elliott Hurwitt, longtime friend of NYFOS and music historian specializing in the works of W. C. Handy. 

from Elliott Hurwitt:

Mose Allison was born on a farm outside Tippo, Mississippi, in 1927.  He got a college education, interrupted by a stint in the military, and arrived on the New York jazz scene in the early 1950s, a fully-formed musician who soon got steady work as a pianist for saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, and by the end of the decade was releasing albums in his own name. These records on the esteemed Prestige label, with titles like Back Country Suite, Creek Bank, and Local Color, caused something of a sensation. Allison isn’t like anyone else: his laconic drawl is more southern than Elvis Presley’s, many of his listeners assumed he was black, and Jet magazine wanted to publish a feature article on him.  In common with such younger colleagues as Dr. John and Van Morrison, he dug deep into the African American tradition, and he showed the wide-ranging musical curiosity of his own contemporary Ray Charles.  Once Allison began singing on records he proved to be one of the finest interpreters of Duke Ellington’s songs.

Allison is a great songwriter in his own right: “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” covered by Bonnie Raitt; “Young Man’s Blues,” covered by the Who; “Parchman Farm,” about the notorious Mississippi prison; “Your Mind is on Vacation”; and several other modern standards. No one can be more analytical, even scientific, about affairs of the heart. Who else has a song of appreciation to a lover that concludes, “Your Molecular Structure—O-Whee!”?  Let’s face it, Mose Allison is just the coolest man in the world.  On “If You Live,” he advises us not to overtax ourselves since, after all, everything’s going to happen anyway. It’s a beautifully structured, deceptively simple work of art.  The setting is Allison’s standard trio; he always had good sidemen for these records, here bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free. The wonderful engineering on this track is by the legendary Rudy van Gelder; he builds an aura around the drummer’s fadeout, increasingly ominous.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Song of the Day: October 29

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Elliott Hurwitt, longtime friend of NYFOS and music historian specializing in the works of W. C. Handy. 

from Elliott Hurwitt:

Champion Jack Dupree was born in New Orleans around 1910 and died in Hanover, Germany, in 1992. Son of a father from the Belgian Congo and a mother of African American and Cherokee heritage, he was orphaned at two and sent to the same Home for Colored Waifs that had provided a musical training ground for Louis Armstrong just a few years earlier. Dupree taught himself piano and embarked on a career playing in juke joints and brothels around the country. He was a fine chef, and worked in the culinary arts professionally at several points in his life. Dupree came by the sobriquet “Champion Jack” the hard way. Having gone into the boxing ring at the suggestion of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, he fought over 100 bouts and won Golden Gloves titles, among other distinctions. Considering how many punches he must have landed on who knows how many jaws, it’s a wonder he could play piano at all.

In the 1940s and ’50s Dupree worked on the boundaries of rhythm and blues, folk music, and jazz, with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among other notables. He was a prolific recording artist, cutting many sides in New York, and had a hit with “Walking the Blues” in 1955. By the end of the 1950s Dupree was spending most of his time in England and Denmark, where he liked the career opportunities and relative lack of race prejudice. A plaque commemorates Dupree’s residence in Halifax, England, his home in later years. In the mid-1960s he recorded in London with some of a new generation of blues-influenced rock n’ rollers, including Eric Clapton and John Mayall.

Dupree asks the time-honored question “Why?” The answer, of course, if “I Don’t Know.” He’s accompanied here solely by the electric guitar of Kenn Lending, a Danish musician who worked with him steadily during the expatriate blues-man’s later years. In his solo, prodded by Dupree to “steal a few notes, steal a few notes,” then “take one more, son!” Lending eases into some blistering high notes. Dupree could stoop to the very low humor, and he must have made a terrible adversary. But his rough good nature and hard-earned mother wit are a tonic in a complicated world.

Song of the Day: October 28

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Elliott Hurwitt, longtime friend of NYFOS and music historian specializing in the works of W. C. Handy. 

from Elliott Hurwitt:

They called the Count Basie Orchestra “The Band That Plays the Blues.” Its All-American Rhythm Section (Basie on piano; Freddie Greene on guitar, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums), was legendary for powering this group, which rose to great popularity in the late 1930s, a bluesier alternative to the more cerebral Duke Ellington sound. Coming out of the rowdy Kansas City scene, the Basie band had illustrious soloists in every section, including Lester Young on tenor saxophone. Here, in its early glory, the band has the miraculous cohesion that made it popular with dancers. It is simultaneously a coiled spring of focus and a loose, funky combo. The band’s soloists are showcased on this record, which dates from February 1938. Only two verses of blues are given to Jimmy Rushing, “Mister Five by Five,” as he was called for his remarkable dimensions. “Sent For You Yesterday (and Here You Come Today)” is credited to Rushing (lyrics) and to Basie as co-composer with Eddie Durham, a brilliant arranger who played both guitar and trombone in the band.  They make us wait for Rushing to come in, but when he does it’s like the cool drink of water you didn’t know you were missing.  A genuine blues tenor, Rushing was hailed as a “shouter,” like Bessie Smith and other, mainly female, exponents of the art.  After Rushing has his say, Harry “Sweets” Edison’s lyrically bluesy trumpet solo leads into an ensemble riff with a family resemblance similar to Fats Waller’s “I Want Some Seafood, Mama.” The energy level rises to a peak, with “Papa” Jo Jones swinging us out at the drums. The verses heard here were classics of the floating blues material found throughout the south; Rushing added others in additional versions of the song captured live over the remaining years of his career. He was also captured on film singing it with Basie, demonstrating that he may have been a fat man, but he was light on his feet.  Here’s the 1938 classic version:

Song of the Day: October 27

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Elliott Hurwitt, longtime friend of NYFOS and music historian specializing in the works of W. C. Handy. 

from Elliott Hurwitt:

We don’t know a whole lot about Geeshie Wiley, who recorded “Last Kind Words Blues” and a handful of other songs, except that she worked in a duo with L.V. Thomas, who was a lesbian, and they were probably a couple. Wiley didn’t have a lot of luck with men; she is known to have killed her second husband with a knife in 1931, then pretty much vanished into the mists of time, probably returning to Texas, from whence she had journeyed north to record. She and L.V. entered a Grafton, Wisconsin studio of Paramount Records (a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company) with their guitars and cut this record when Wiley was around 22, in 1930; they made 5 other sides, some not released till the following year.

“Last Kind Words” isn’t strictly speaking a blues, but it represents song traditions that are surely older, and embodies blues feeling, hard luck and trouble. It is particularly strong in the eerie, the power to chill the blood: so, wishing you all an early Happy Halloween. The text, as with so many blues, is a jumble of multiple earlier songs, some of which must go back at least to the World War I period: “If I die, in the German war…” is a tip-off, and many of the other lines are found in numerous blues from all over the U.S.  Formerly very obscure, this record has become a cult item since it appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s biographical film Crumb in 1994. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2014 article in The New York Times magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and L.V.,” brought these inadequately known blues artists to still wider renown. Most recently, Greil Marcus provides a fine discussion of “Last Kind Words” in his latest book, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, where Geeshie is spotlighted alongside Bob Dylan and the great folklorist Bascomb Lamar Lunsford. It’s about time, too.

Song of the Day: October 26

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Elliott Hurwitt, longtime friend of NYFOS and music historian specializing in the works of W. C. Handy. 

from Elliott Hurwitt:

Gladys Bentley (ca. 1907-1960) was one of the biggest stars of African-American entertainment in the 1920s, along with Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker among female stars at her level, and her stardom lasted through the 1930s. She was typically seen in a white tuxedo, and never, at least in public, as a woman.  Bentley is generally cited as among the most openly gay major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.  In 1958 she made a memorable appearance on “You Bet Your Life,” and by that point late in her career she was appearing as a woman, and is accompanied by a Nigerian man, who eventually dances to her fine rendition of “Them There Eyes,” joined by host Groucho Marx.

Bentley’s 1928 version of “Worried Blues” is unrelated to other more famous “country blues” songs by that title in the period, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote it. The lyrics are a good example of the complaint-about-a-man genre, with a memorably funny final line.  Here Bentley takes on all three roles, singer, instrumental soloist, and pianist, as on the famous records made by such blues queens as Bessie Smith, who memorably had Louis Armstrong playing cornet obligato fills between Smith’s voice. On “Worried Blues,” Bentley is her own band, scatting spare, bluesy, growled riffs.  While some sources have claimed the pianist is songwriter J.C. Johnson, I suspect the fine keyboard work here is also by Ms. Bentley, who shows in 1958 she would have been more than up to it.

Song of the Day: October 23

Shea OwensThis week’s Song of the Day curator is baritone Shea Owens. An alumnus of NYFOS’s Emerging Artist program and NYFOS Next, Shea is returning to the NYFOS Mainstage next month in From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and FriendsBe sure to get your tickets today!  

from Shea Owens:

Let’s end the week on a high note—literally. Tenors get a lot of those. And in the operatic world it’s universally agreed that, of the men, tenors get the most glory and make the most money. But do they really get the best music too? That’s up for debate—and there’s a song that makes a convincing argument for baritones. “I’m Glad I’m Not a Tenor” was written by American composer Ben Moore in 2007. You’ll hear snippets of several famous baritone arias, but somehow, the famous tenor aria “Nessun dorma” keeps creeping in . . . Have a listen and see if you’re convinced.

(Since there is no professional recording of this song currently available, I’m posting a performance I did in early 2014.)

Song of the Day: October 22

Shea OwensThis week’s Song of the Day curator is baritone Shea Owens. An alumnus of NYFOS’s Emerging Artist program and NYFOS Next, Shea is returning to the NYFOS Mainstage next month in From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and FriendsBe sure to get your tickets today!  

from Shea Owens:

Lyricist and composer Gene Scheer wrote a song in 1998 titled “American Anthem.” It has become one of his most popular songs, and has been played at numerous important national events. In my opinion, it’s worthy to stand as a secondary anthem of our great nation. In an interview on NPR in 2004 (found here), Scheer describes a few of his reasons for writing the song, including the following: “America has represented, in large measure . . . the best aspirations of humanity. The sense of enduring freedom, collective responsibility, responsibility for each other . . . these are ideas that are at the core of American values.”

For the last few years, I have sensed a trend that American patriotism (love for and devotion to one’s country) is on the decline. It can be easy to forget our blessings and the goodness of our roots amidst the clamor of bitter politics, materialism, and pride. I personally appreciate reminders of our country’s history, and of the sacrifices made “by those who came before.”

A few choice lines from the song:

“Each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies the soul of a nation that will never die.”

“Let me know in my heart, when my days are through—America, America, I gave my best to you.”